05/03/2016 01:19 EDT | Updated 05/04/2017 05:12 EDT

Meet Canada's Donald Trump: PM Robert Borden

'A group of Canadian $100 bills lined up in rows. Focus is on the face of Prime Minister Robert Borden on the second bill from the bottom, softening above and below.'
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'A group of Canadian $100 bills lined up in rows. Focus is on the face of Prime Minister Robert Borden on the second bill from the bottom, softening above and below.'

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is shaking up the U.S. political establishment with his nativist policy ideas such as deporting Mexican workers, banning immigrants based on their religion and renegotiating (or cancelling) free trade agreements with the neighbouring nations.

As Canadians look down upon the severe tone of the Republican primary season, they might console themselves by saying: "We would never resort to that kind of hateful dialogue, and it would never work here -- in the multicultural haven that is Canada."

Prime Minister Robert Borden might prove them wrong.

Borden won the October 1911 election on the strength of his xenophobic indulgences betrayed by a telling slogan: "A White Canada."

The 1911 federal election campaign played on voters' phobias and patriotism. Robert Borden's Conservatives were happy to harvest the fear of foreigners on the road to their electoral victory.

No to 'free trade'

Voters viewed with trepidation the proposed free trade deal with outsiders -- those south of the 49th parallel.

In Toronto, the Canadian-British Association lobby group was formed to spread its malicious message of anti-Americanism across Ontario in the months preceding the election. Arthur Hawkes was in charge of the special appeal to British-born Canadians, 250,000 of whom had immigrated to Canada in the three years leading up to the election.

Hawkes' final appeal before voting day appealed to voters' identity and xenophobic tendencies: "It is the high privilege of the British born in Canada to unite with the Canadian born, at the most important general election in Canadian history, to defeat the object of a foreign government."

Moreover, Conservative leaders contended that a "reciprocity" agreement (basically, a free trade deal) with the neighbours to the south would cause massive job losses. The unsubstantiated claim drew legions of nervous factory workers to Conservative ranks.

Conservatives campaigned on the oft-repeated quip: "No truck nor trade with the Yankee," though there is no record of Borden having voiced that phrase himself. Borden's Conservative associates produced thousands of pamphlets to fan the flames of anti-Americanism as it swept across English Canada.

Anti-Asian sentiment in British Columbia

During Borden's decade in Official Opposition, PM Wilfrid Laurier's Liberals had successfully stemmed the flow of immigrants from Asia and India, as well as other "undesirable" pilgrims who were not white.

Much to Vancouverites' dismay, Asian immigrants kept coming despite the Chinese Head Tax and the anti-Japanese/anti-South Asian laws designed to discourage newcomers. And they came by the thousands -- 5,320 Chinese paid the head tax in 1910-11 alone, according to A White Man's Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants by Patricia E. Roy. The Asiatic Exclusion League lobbied "to keep Oriental immigrants out of British Columbia."

"We don't want any more Chinks."--East Kootenay, B.C. Editor, 1911, as quoted in A White Man's Province.

This sentiment spanned the province (as evidenced by this 1914 Vancouver Sun political cartoon) and was the chief ballot question in B.C. The Vancouver Trades and Labour Council brought its grievances to PM Wilfred Laurier a year before the 1910 election: "White supremacy," they contended, was in jeopardy if existing Asians were permitted to enter almost every trade."

The Victoria Times: "The Anglo-Saxon nations on the Pacific coast regard the Yellow Peril as the serious and particular menace.... This attitude is prompted by the instinct of self-preservation..."

B.C. Premier Richard McBride echoed these sentiments in 1909: "We stand for a white British Columbia, a white land and a white empire." There were even provincial laws drawn to forbid the government from employing Asian residents.

Robert Borden pandered to these Sinophobe constituents with this connotative catchphrase: "A White Canada." -- a political dog whistle of yesteryear.

PM Borden would keep his promise: it was under his tenure that the Canadian government ordered the Komagata Maru ship to be pushed out to sea in 1914. The Sikh migrants aboard the ship were refused admittance, although Canada had accepted 400,000 mostly Caucasian immigrants the year before.

Luckily, these gutter tactics no longer entice the majority of electors... most of the time.

The general recoil associated with racist pamphlets, xenophobic pandering and dog whistles are a testament to the progress Old Stock Canadians have made in 100 years. Let's hope our American neighbours follow our lead.

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